Ten Word or Less Review: A big, thunderous effort for a mostly silly movie.
Every time Martin Scorsese steps behind a camera, something legendary is supposed to unfold. The man is supposed to weave masterpieces the way old ladies knit socks. The power of his monumental works looms over everything he does and has for years, so to see the man indulging in something as ultimately nonsensical as “Shutter Island” is a little odd, but not necessarily bad. “Shutter Island” is a lavish lark of film making from a master level cinematic genius out to goof off and indulge in his most uninhibited instincts. It may not be unique or groundbreaking, but its got a vitality and unrelentingness that most movies never dream of achieving.
Set during the early 1950’s, “Island” stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Scorsese’s go to guy of the past decade, as a federal marshal investigating the impossible disappearance of an inmate from a foreboding insane asylum. The solitary institution houses only the most criminally insane lunatics and keeps them under stringent lock and key. The disappearance of a female inmate from the facility points to conspiracy and cover up and so on and so forth. There’s not much point covering all the ins and outs because any astute viewer will be onto the movie’s tangled gimmicks pretty quickly. “Shutter Island” is twisty/trickery cinema and it makes no bones about it. Nothing will be as it seems, but in this case, everything sort of is. The larger points to consider with movies like “Island” are ‘Does the movie make any sense on its own terms?’ and ‘Does the film jerk us around with too many twists for twist sake?’ The answers are ‘sort of’ and ‘mercifully not.’ I say ‘sort of’ because while it makes sense on its own terms, the film culminates in what are extremely loopy explanations for itself. The entire movie proves to be ridiculous, but if you can accept the ludicrous nature of it, you might have a grand old time. I say ‘mercifully not’ because there’s nothing quite as annoying as a movie twist that doesn’t know when to stop twisting. Eventually you can wind up with a piece of barb wire cutting into your wrist.
The fun comes because Scorsese is not playing subtle games or out to impress critics with sensitivity or well groomed panache. “Shutter Island” hammers the audience with a pulverizing film score, thunderous sound effects, a few spook cuts, nightmare inspired visuals, but it’s not a horror show, it merely acts like one from time to time. Scorsese unfurls his creation as a type of escalating fever dreamscape that might make David Lynch a little envious if he felt such things. I doubt he does. Scorsese’s at his flashiest and attention getting best here and things are likely better for that. A more down to Earth craftsman would likely have played the material too straight or close to the chest, refusing to acknowledge the exaggerated and purple nature of the tale at hand. Scorsese clearly knows how sensational all of this is at its core and has in turn decided to indulge whatever rampant instinct comes to him. “Island” is routinely gripping and lurid, edging so close to spinning out of control, but never quite does. Its ending may seem a bit ham-fisted and on the nose, but it works on the whole.
As for the cast, DiCaprio has become a more comfortable fit for Scorsese’s work as time as gone on. He’s gradually shed that problem of looking like a man boy in Scorsese’s world of dangerous, tight fisted men. He isn’t overshadowed or knocked off the screen by any of his amply talented co-stars. “Shutter Island” may be raucous and preposterous but it attracted a who’s who of top tier actors. Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingley, Max Von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Elias Koteas and rediscovered Jack Earl Haley all do excellent work in parts that range from expository to fleeting in nature. The fact that they still stand out against the director’s nearly hysterical style says a lot for them.
The book on Scorsese has been written by this point, everything from here on out is just one more chapter to consider in his God-like body of work. Critically, “Shutter Island” will probably not see a lot of talk or appreciation whenever this book comes to a close. It’s goofy, bombastic, asinine and kind of nuts, none of which are endearing qualities in the world of film critiquing. But it will likely be one of his most popular films over time because despite all the inherent drawbacks and histrionics that make it up, the sheer watchability of it is hard to argue with.
Related to: Identity, Vanilla Sky, The Others